Regency romance

The Frenzy of Running for the Border

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Trope #1: Elopement

Let’s talk about unintended consequences, shall we?

In 1753, the British Parliament passed Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, with the intention of curtailing marriages performed in secret. Prior to this act, English clergymen could perform marriages without the couple having to procure a license or post banns. They would be fined for performing the ceremony in a parochial church house (thanks to an earlier Marriage Act), but the marriage was still valid.

And if they performed the marriage in London’s Fleet Prison, there was no fine at all (because of that earlier Marriage Act’s unintended consequences, hahaha).

Romantic, isn’t it? “Come, darling! Let’s run away to the prison house and get married amid the beggars and debtors!”

But that line must have worked. By the 1740s, roughly 12.5% of English marriages were Fleet Marriages, and their participants came from all walks of life, both rich and poor, upper and lower class.

The Marriage Act of 1753 was supposed to close this prison loophole, and it did.

Only to open another one: the Act didn’t apply to foreign marriages—including those performed in Scotland.

Cue a grand rush for the northern border, and the eventual emergence of a UK marriage icon: Gretna Green. This little border town lies along the road from London to Edinburgh. If a Regency romance talks of elopements, Gretna Green is the most likely destination, the nearest point where couples fleeing north could marry one another without the pesky need of parental consent or government sanctions.

(It’s kind of like the safe space in the game of Tag. Once you’ve crossed the line you can look back at the people chasing you and call, “Nanny-nanny-boo-boo! You ca-an’t catch me!”)

The journey was long, and the woman’s reputation would be in shambles before the couple arrived, but a quick ceremony would remedy all. So too for those who fled across the Channel from Dover to Calais, France: spend a night on a boat, get up the next morning in a foreign country, and all your marriage obstacles have magically disappeared!

Isn’t elopement wonderful?

The ease with which a woman’s reputation could be ruined in this period, though, provides an alternate and more salacious window for drama.

Trope #2: Abduction

When you pick up a Regency romance, you can lay odds that someone within those pages will get abducted. Because of the era’s social constraints, the heroine’s virtue can be used against her as leverage for forcing her into an unwanted marriage, and without the perpetrator ever having to lay a finger on her. Passing a night unchaperoned in his near vicinity is enough to seal the deal.

If she’s a beautiful heiress, the chances of this scenario skyrocket. The abduction motif is almost built into the template alongside the devastatingly handsome hero and the array of social events.

And, more recently (i.e., post-Georgette Heyer), the guy performing the abduction is never quite up to snuff.

Maybe he’s crazy or deluded. He might be a fop, trying too hard to play the part of a Regency beau and falling short in his attempt, or he could be anywhere from dull to horrid in the looks department. One way or another, he’s defective, a social outlier framed in such a way that he poses no allure for the heroine or the reader.

Because the hero has to save her so they can finally confess their lurrrve to each other.

Yes, we’re playing literary football again, and Girl-as-Object is alive and well. In this scenario, however, no one’s rooting for the away team. And, true to his less-than-desirable image, the off-beat abductor never triumphs.

Which is a good thing. No one picks up a Regency with the desire to get depressed.

I would like some more competent abductors, though. It would be okay if the guy was a handsome, cunning sociopath instead of a desperate, penniless fop. There’s no need to frame him in a way that makes him completely unsuitable as a love interest before the abduction ever occurs.

The abduction can do that job well enough on its own.

(And really, that seems like the best reason for including an abduction in the plot at all.)

The Joys of Literary Beauty Pageants

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Oh, those opportunistic rakes. Whatever would we do without them?

In Regency romance, any female rival is most likely a “diamond of the first water”: beautiful, poised, rich, accomplished, beautiful, well-dressed, beautiful. Did I mention that she’s beautiful? There’s a reason for that. Such stunning rival characters up the ante on a plain-Jane heroine, thereby making the heroine’s eventual triumph with the hero all that much sweeter.

Hero: My dear, you underestimate your beauty. You have the radiance of a thousand suns.

Heroine: You cannot mean it. I am so very plain.

Hero: No.  You are infinitely more beautiful than any other woman in the world.

Heroine: *swoons*

Destined Couple: *smoochy-smoochy-smoochy*

Freckle-faced Reader: The ordinary girl won out over the beauty queen? Maybe it can happen to me, too! *SQUEEEEEEEEEE!!!*

This motif is not restricted to Regencies, of course. It runs rampant through the broader Romance genre, including YA novels with a romance side-plot. It all hails back, once again, to the Girl with Low Self-Esteem (that wretched, pervasive trope).

The emphasis on physical beauty demonstrates how shallow any set of characters are. Which is why it’s so at home in Regency novels: it’s the hallmark of an era where image is everything. Women are chattel, and their main objective is marriage, so of course the prettier packages will fetch a better buyer.

(The men can be as ugly as all get-out as long as they’re rich or humorous to make up for it. Different standards for different sexes.)

In a novel where the heroine has self-esteem, it doesn’t matter how pretty a rival might be. The heroine won’t make comparisons because her worth doesn’t hinge on outshining anyone else. She might even admire the other woman’s looks and acknowledge her superior beauty.

Because it’s not a threat.

It seems as though general literary preferences tip towards the plain-girl-defeats-beautiful-rival scenario, however. Maybe it’s because we instinctively want to root for an underdog. Maybe we each see ourselves as an underdog standing against the vast and oppressive world, and such stories bolster our confidence to go out and conquer. Maybe we all have inferiority complexes and like to see those who are “superior” made to eat crow in the end.

Maybe we all think of ourselves as plain.

(I mean, I’ve been looking at this same face in the mirror for decades now. How boring is that?)

Popular literature reflects a culture’s psychology. You want to know what the people of a certain era or area value? Examine the art and literature they produce. In it you might discover their hopes, their fears, their expectations on life…

And you might discover that they have a shallow obsession with image.

(Perhaps the Regency era is not so far removed from our own after all.)

The Benefit of Bucking Traditional Values

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There’s this age-old lie in romance novels that truly eligible men are looking for something new, something fresh in the woman of their dreams. Often this translates into a heroine who breaks social boundaries as a sign of her individual merit.

Don’t buy into it. In real life, he might like your sass while you’re dating, but two months into your marriage he’ll start complaining that you’re too outspoken and that your hamburger casserole tastes nothing like his mother’s. To some extent, I think, men are conditioned into assuming they want a woman who breaks boundaries. Then when they get one, they wonder why she can’t tone it down and be normal.

(Or so I’ve observed.)

Regency romances are particularly egregious at perpetuating this stereotype. For example:

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer: Judith Taverner drives her own curricle through the park in London. She takes snuff like a man (in a variety mixed for her by her love interest, and IMO, if there’s anything more disgusting than a man taking snuff, it’s a woman doing it in the name of fashion). She finally gets a good scolding when she participates in a carriage race through the countryside, but she’s been allowed to run so far off her leash that it doesn’t occur to her before this how extremely improper her actions are.

The Wooing of Miss Masters by Susan Carroll: Audra Leigh Masters swears like a man. She hates fox hunting so much that she’ll put herself in harm’s way to save the creatures, like any modern dedicated PETA member might do—except that she lives in the early 1800s, not in the twenty-first century. (Confession: this book is one of my guilty pleasures, but when you step back and look at Audra and her love interest as human beings, they’re both kind of awful. That might be why I like it so much, though.)

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson: Marianne Daventry loves to twirl, despite the disasters that happen every time she does it. She also loves to pretend she’s a dairy-maid in training both with her respectable grandmother and with slightly obnoxious gentlemen she meets by chance in country inns. But it’s totally charming of her, of course.

All of these traits make for “different” or “unique” heroines. And, admittedly, I’ve only highlighted their aberrant characteristics (though honestly, Judith and Audra are kind of lost causes when it comes to conforming to social expectations; Marianne at least has a sense of shame and tries to conduct herself with decorum in mixed company). The men who adore these women, though, are completely fictional as well.

So what kind of story would exist if the hero reflected society’s usual reaction toward a heroine with non-traditional behavior?

I present to you Fantomina by Eliza Haywood. (No, no. Don’t thank me. You haven’t even heard what it’s about yet.)

Published in 1725 (still the Georgian era, but almost a century before Regency times), this fascinatingly atrocious novella tells the story of a lady of good birth who, so taken by a fine gentleman, embarks on a course of intrigue to enjoy his intimate company. She disguises herself first as a prostitute who charms him into visiting her house for, oh, like a good two weeks. Then he gets bored and goes to Bath, so she follows him, dresses up like a servant, gets a job where he lives, and continues to enjoy his amorous company there for a month. And he gets bored again and returns to London. But she dresses up like a widow and meets him along the way, and again they share each other’s company. And so it goes. Back in London she plays three different people at once (the prostitute, the widow, and a third mask-wearing mystery woman) to keep his attentions engaged.

And because she’s been performing these illicit activities in disguise with false names, her reputation as a lady of quality remains intact.

Until she goes into labor at a very public ball and gets rushed home to deliver a strapping baby girl.

Disgrace! Ruin!

The ending really takes the cake. Forced on her delivery to confess her sins, she names the baby’s father. He gets dragged there, professing the whole time that he’s never had designs on her much less followed through on them. The full extent of her deceit emerges.

Her mother apologizes to him and sends her off to a convent for the rest of her life.

The End.

Because it’s totally fine that this fashionable gentleman was sleeping around with four or five different women at the same time (who all happened to be the same person, haha). That he unwittingly fathers a child with a lady of quality is nothing to hold against him. Certainly he shouldn’t have to take responsibility for his actions with someone who was acting outside of societal boundaries.

(Even recounting the story makes me want to… Oh, how does the Internet put it? KILL ALL THE THINGS.)

Yes, give me your lies, Regency romance. I’ll take your adorable, aberrant heroines and their dashing amours any day of the week.

I’ve seen the alternative. It’s not pretty.

Gentlemen Fine and Dandy

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Amid the plethora of Regency social rules is the expectation that young ladies entering Society be presented by an established friend or relative of high reputation. There’s no showing up to the party on your own here, girls. Any unchaperoned miss will be turned away at the door.

And then gossiped about for weeks afterwards, the hussy.

This wise female protector is only one gatekeeper that guards a lady’s path from the schoolroom to social success. Other established women will determine whether she remains in good standing, whether she is admitted to certain assembly rooms, and even whether she’s allowed to dance the waltz. (Such a scandalous dance, you know. Practically the Regency equivalent of twerking.)

And it’s all a great big joke, because the morals of this period were non-existent. The façade was all that mattered.

The fictional dukes, earls, knights, counts, viscounts, etc. that have been created in the name of Regency and other Georgian-era romances quite possibly outnumber the nonfictional noblemen from A.D. 1066 to present by now. A rich, handsome lord is the big fish when it comes to romantic heroes in this genre, even though the quintessential Regency-era hero was a mere “Mr.”

(Paging Fitzwilliam Darcy. You’re wanted by women everywhere.)

You can usually tell from the onset of the story which gentleman is meant to be the romantic lead. If he’s handsome, titled, and possibly brooding, that’s your guy. The simple Mr. gets to take a back seat unless the Lord is distinctly unsuitable (like old, or fat, or dull, or ugly, or married).

The fashion of the gentleman is another clue to his suitability. We can blame Beau Brummell for that one. Or thank him, as the case may be. This is an era where a bystander could tell a man’s tailor by the cut of his coat against his shoulders. Or so the Regency genre would have us believe. The fit of the coat gets mentioned an awful lot, along with whether or not the man’s Hessian boots are polished and how his cravat is tied. (Because apparently there are multiple variations for how to tie a cravat, and one receives greater status depending on how intricate and well executed the final result is.)

Variables to this Standard Regency Hero Template can be a breath of fresh air. Miles Calverleigh in Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep, for example, doesn’t dress the part of a high-fashion gentleman because after two decades in India he doesn’t give a rip what Society thinks of him. His lack of fashion is as much a character trait for him as obsessive cravat-tying is for any other Regency hero, though.

Compare him to Julian St. John Audley, Earl of Worth from Heyer’s Regency Buck, who is a paragon of fashion without hardly trying. Worth carelessly makes up cravat styles that his fanboys immediately want to copy. He is not a dandy (heaven forbid!), but he gives such particular attention to his dress and grooming while projecting an air of indifference towards it because it’s fashionable to be fashionable while pretending not to care.

Calverleigh’s the better man in more ways than one, even if he is a mere Mr rather than a Lord. But they’re not in the same book vying for the same heroine, so it doesn’t matter.

Overdressed gentlemen, those dandies with their padded shoulders and multitude of seals and fobs, fall firmly into the “unsuitable” category. These are the uber-trendy characters, Regency hipsters perched on the cutting edge of fashion and executing it just a shade too severely for good taste. I’ve yet to read a Regency romance where an overdressed dandy plays the hero; they are typically an object of comic relief or outright scorn.

Crushing Debts and Incorrigible Rakes

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Yeah, Average, think of the children!

A number of literary tropes occur in the Regency genre, but I’m only going to hit on a couple of them in this post (as foreshadowed by today’s comic).

Trope #1: The Family in Penury

Regency novels typically focus on the English upper class and nobility. Money in those ranks meant everything. This was an extravagant era led by an extravagant man. (Seriously, Prinny’s debts were astronomical enough that Parliament had to intervene, and yet he still continued his profligate lifestyle.) For much of the ton, excess luxury was treated as necessity. The upper classes had to be seen as living like upper classes. Men and women alike sought to marry into fortunes. Estates were mortgaged to the hilt to maintain lavish lifestyles.

A family in penury was a family in disgrace. Jane Austen’s social commentary confirms as much: we see it reflected in Sir Walter Elliot’s disgust at retrenchment, in Mrs. Bennett’s despair at her daughters’ lack of dowry, in the Dashwood family’s quiet retreat to the countryside, in Fanny Price being deemed little better than a servant, in the natural contempt that Emma Woodhouse displays towards Miss Bates, in how quickly General Tilney ejects Catherine Morland from his home.

Finances are a running motif of the era. Thus, when you pick up a Regency romance, you can pretty much bet that someone in those pages is penniless and desperate to hide and/or correct that detestable condition.

For Regency England, money equals status even when the ruling figurehead is hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt and racking up even more by the minute.

Trope #2: The Heiress and the Rake

The morals of this era were ridiculously lopsided. Upper class women adhered to a strict, virginal code of conduct while men could choose a life of debauchery (following after Prinny’s debauched example, no doubt). There were rules, of course. Mistresses came from the middle or lower classes, often selected from the caste of actresses and dancing girls that entertained the elite in more ways than one, and the men who kept them earned reputations as rakes. Such reputations did not get them shunned from good society, though. (In contrast, a woman’s reputation once tarnished was destroyed forever.)

Regency romance rakes have two settings: wealthy or poor.

If the rake is wealthy, his indulgences are excused; often he will reform for the heroine; sometimes the reputation is “exaggerated” (i.e., the author pulls their punch at the end of the book, à la “See? He’s actually a nice guy who let everyone think the worst of him!”).

If the rake is poor, however, he’s a scheming cad out to hoodwink an heiress into marrying him. Sometimes the protagonist is the heiress. Sometimes she’s the guardian of the heiress. At all times, those in the know agree that the prospective match is a deplorable mistake.

Keep in mind that as the reader you are supposed to love the first type of rake and despise the second. No, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s part of the rules.

The many, many rules.

The Grandmother of Guilty Pleasures

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When it comes to Regency Romance, there is one name that stands out as the paragon of the genre, at whose altar all other Regency authors and readers should bend in grateful homage. That one name is the intelligent, the prolific, the unparalleled…

Georgette Heyer.

And I sincerely hope you weren’t expecting me to say Jane Austen, because she didn’t even write Regency romance. She wrote contemporary satire. (Chew on that one for a minute, if you please.)

Heyer single-handedly established the Regency subgenre of historical romance. Her heavy research of that fascinating era shows in her books, from her in-depth descriptions of lace and textiles to her era-inspired slang, to her casual mentions of assembly rooms, gaming clubs, and horse auctioneers. Jane Austen, in contrast, never so much as referenced the ton, let alone Almack’s, White’s, or Tattersall’s. She didn’t need to. She was writing to and about her peers, not recreating an era that none of her readers had ever witnessed.

Genre Background

The term “Regency” refers to a period in the early 1800s, when Mad King George III of England was as nutty as a fruitcake and his son, also George, ruled as the Prince Regent in his stead. George III died in 1820, at which point the Prince Regent George became George IV and the Regency era ended. (And all of this occurred in a greater “Georgian” period, so named thanks to the Georges I – IV ruling consecutively.)

International events of note: the United States had already won its war for independence and established a constitutional republic. There was bad blood between England and the U.S. during this period (War of 1812, anyone?), so you’re not likely to find Americans hanging around London. The French, meanwhile, had Napoleon at their helm. The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo and the French dictator’s exile to Saint Helena, but its repercussions echoed into the years that followed.

The iconic fashion of this era, for women, was the empire waist so popularized by scores of Jane Austen film adaptations. Society behaved according to a very strict set of rules, and a decided caste system existed between the upper and lower classes.

And Georgette Heyer set the definitive benchmark for all of these elements in literature.

Drifting by Degrees

It seems like the further we get from Heyer’s writing, the further the Regency genre strays from its roots. Modern characters with their modern values creep into more recent works, spouting off anachronistic opinions that would likely boggle the early 19th-century minds they’re intended to represent.

And that’s to be expected, to some extent. Heyer’s main characters were fish out of water in the Regency era too. She wrote more than a century after that era’s close, recreating the bygone world as best she could, but in the end, her creations are still counterfeits; and counterfeits, by their very nature, get smudged by the age and environment in which they are designed.

Perhaps that’s why many more recent works lack that “Regency” feeling for me—they lack Georgette’s distinctive touch. Sometimes, when I open a newer Regency novel, I feel as though I’ve stepped into a dark room, with only a spotlight on characters and no sense of any space that might exist beyond the boundaries of their meager setting. They don’t live in an entire world, but rather within a bubble, a Regency-themed island floating around in a nebulous ether.

And sometimes, that “Regency” theme only exists because the book jacket claims that title in its summary blurb.

Languishing in Austen’s Shadow

I adore Jane Austen. Persuasion is my favorite, but of course I love all her works. She deserves every accolade that is poured upon her head.

For some reason that I cannot fathom, though, after 50+ novels and millions of books sold, Georgette Heyer still gets back-burner treatment in comparison. It seems like many Regency authors readily attribute their inspiration to Austen and only mention Heyer in passing, if at all, as though she’s the guilty pleasure that no one wants to admit they love.

And I’m not sure that she would care. She was happy to write and sell books.

As the pioneer of the genre, though, she deserve some credit. So hat’s off to you, Georgette. Your imagination sparked tens of thousands to follow.

Whether they acknowledge you or not.

 

PS—Heyer also deserves a couple dozen film adaptations. The rights have been sold, but the production companies that own them are, apparently, content to sit on them.

The jerks.